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The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes

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The Fermentation GutHub is a local community of fermentation enthusiasts in Singapore formed around 'smart' human-microbial interactions. The project is a critique of the common IoT utopia claiming efficient and transparent interactions between citizens and various stakeholders using smart sensors and monitoring devices in the cities of the future. Instead of relying on technology produced and supported by corporate actors or large government plans, the GutHub scenario uses existing fermentation groups and DIY tools as a model for designing resilient and symbiotic urban communities. Against the utopia of evidence-based decision making driven by policy and corporate actors, it emphasizes the importance of collective experience with risk and opportunities negotiated on a grassroots level. The project supports citizens' exchanges of various cultures, fermentation practices, and sometimes dangerous but also beneficial experiments with our guts as an interface, and proposes a model for messier IoT scenarios of future cities.
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The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
THE FERMENTATION GUTHUB PROJECT AND THE INTERNET OF
MICROBES
Markéta Dolejšová & Denisa Kera, National University of Singapore*
The Fermentation GutHub is a community of food geeks in Singapore formed around "smart"
P2P fermentation practices. The GutHub project is a critique of the smart city utopia promoting
IoT technology as a way to create efficient and transparent interactions between citizens and
various stakeholders. Instead of relying on technology produced by corporate actors or large
government plans, the GutHub scenario uses hands-on fermentation practices and low-cost DIY
gadgets to create a symbiotic community of citizens, technology, and microbes. Against the
smart city utopia of evidence-based decision-making guided mostly by expert stakeholders, the
GutHub project emphasizes the importance of a collective experience with risk and
opportunities negotiated on a "messier" grassroots level. The main goal is to tests various
formats of citizens' collaboration and peer sharing of resources to promote "smart" sustainable,
healthy, and transparent food-tech interactions within the urban context. In this chapter, we
present data from 8 months of ethnography-based research in the GutHub community, to
discuss the challenges and opportunities in current smart city visions, as well as in their
grassroots counterparts.
* Dolejsova, M., & Kera, D. (2016). The Fermentation Guthub Project and the Internet of Microbes.
Enriching Urban Spaces with Ambient Computing, the Internet of Things, and Smart City Design. Ed by
Konomi, Shin'ichi, Roussos, George. IGI Global, 2016.
The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
INTRODUCTION
"The Fermentation GutHub is basically about fermenting everything around and making wild associations
to post-socialist foodies, Latour, Stallman, and bitcoin."
Fermentation GutHub is a personal and social experiment with food, taste, and health, but also
a community platform for online-offline exchanges of fermentation knowledge and resources.
The Fermentation GutHub project (further as GutHub) was initiated in April 2015 by four food-
tech enthusiasts at the National University of Singapore, and over the time has grown into a
public community of geeks and foodies organizing regular fermentation meetups in local
hackerspace (Hackerspace.sg).
The project uses DIY (do-it-yourself) technology tools and mundane food making practices to
critically inspect the "smart city" promises of a social innovation enabled by Information and
Communication Technology (ICT) and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. Instead of contributing
to the current smart cities' efforts to empower citizens by high-end ICT and IoT solutions that
engage lay publics mostly as mere end users, the GutHub connects citizens of diverse
professional and socio-economic backgrounds around P2P (peer-to-peer) exchanges of
fermentation recipes, ideas, and starter cultures (microbial media essential for the fermentation
process). These exchanges are supported by a number of DIY tools and platforms, such as the
Fermentation Bank of starter cultures; GutHub cookbook hosted at GitHub.com repository;
GutHub Facebook group; online Starter Swarming map for starter cultures swaps; and the
custom-made Mother 0.1 starter culture incubator.
By including these tools, the project combines traditional fermentation techniques with the DIY
ethos of hacking and making, and creates a scenario of the "Internet of Microbes" as a highly
inclusive and low-cost alternative to the current visions of smart cities empowered by costly IoT
and ICT solutions. Along with the Internet of Microbes metaphor, we aim at creating a
speculative mock-up of a smart city environment that is connected over P2P exchanges of
knowledge, data, and microbial cultures. In this sense, the GutHub project represents an
example of situated and everyday food science (Choi, Foth, and Hearn 2014; DiSalvo 2012)
that uses human and non-human entanglements (Barad 2007; Haraway, 2003) to promote a
democratization of expert knowledge and top-down innovation processes. Based on the findings
from the 8-months long ethnographic observation in the GutHub group and other fermentation
communities, we discuss the challenges and opportunities in current smart city visions as well
as in their grassroots counterparts.
Smart (Food) Cities
Smart City is an urban development vision to integrate ICT and IoT technology to better manage
city’s assets spanning across areas of public health, urban agriculture, transportation, or waste
management (Deakin, 2013). The vision has been implemented and experimented with in cities
around the world, with some of the pioneering examples including Amsterdam, Barcelona,
Taipei, Seoul, Singapore, Stockholm, or Milton Keynes. Citizens of smart cities should be able
to connect with each other and their governments to manage the city's assets collectively, using
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a networked grid of various smart technologies including mobile applications, sensors, data
clouds, or social media.
Smart city stakeholders should comprise of all citizens of diverse professional backgrounds,
government representatives, and industry actors such as technology developers or public
service providers. The smart city concept builds on the participatory ethos of the lay public's
inclusion in creative knowledge processes, where citizens get a chance to contribute actively
and voice out their concerns. However, many smart city plans include lay people merely as end-
users of ICT and IoT solutions, or even as human "sensors" gathering data for start-up
intelligence and governmental elites. That considerably limits the participatory ethos and, hence,
initiates critical discussions about the real impacts of the promised technology-led
empowerment. Critics often highlight the surveillance aspect of the uneven power distribution
within smart city agendas, and the potential privacy threats resulting thereof (Finch & Tene,
2014).
The existing smart city plans are highly connected to food-related issues, particularly those of
food sustainability, safety, and healthiness (e.g. Food Smart Cities for Development, 2015).
However, these plans often fail to recognize the potential of bottom-up DIY projects and
methods, which are seen as too decentralized, "messy", and risky (Dolejšová, Lin Kaiying;
2016). DIY food fermentation is indeed a messy and sometimes also risky activity: There are no
standards, exact quantities or fixed combinations of fermentation ingredients - just ideas and
heuristic recommendations to be validated by a human common sense. At the same time,
fermentation practicing is an empowering opportunity to reconnect with traditional food
techniques, create unique flavors, and become a self-contained food producer.
Fermentation practices are often identified with rural rather than urban context; a relation that
has, however, started to change in the recent decade (Fine 2004). At the heart of the urban
fermentation revival is a food activist Sandor Katz, who advocates fermentation as a way to
"break the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer, and taking back our
dignity and power by becoming producers and creators" (Katz, 2012 p. 17). Katz defines
fermentation as an intrinsically collective activity that involves a broad web of individuals
exchanging their fermentation knowledge and resources to "broaden everybody’s possibilities"
(Katz, 2012, p. 261). In this sense, the urban community-based fermentation, with all its risks
and advantages, offers an interesting model to rethink the present smart city promises based on
safe, "clean", and organized decision-making guided by few expert stakeholders.
Fermentation as a "Smart" Food Practice
Food and beverage fermentation, a metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gasses and
alcohols by using microbial organisms, has been used since the Neolithic times (Harley, Klein &
Lansing, 2006). The fizzy reactions of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and other microbial cultures that
produce the unique taste of kimchi, yogurt, kefir or coffee are favored by people of all continents
(Katz, 2012). DIY fermentation practices can be driven by diverse personal motivations, such as
a desire for new taste experiences, a joy of tinkering, or concerns about personal health as well
as the health of the Planet. Fermented food is that is rich in probiotics (microorganisms
The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
produced within the fermentation process that help promote a diversity of dieters' gut flora) is
often hailed for its potential benefits for human immunity as well as digestive and oral health
(Parvel et al., 2006). The recent popularity of "microbiome dieting", based on a consumption of
foods that promote the balance of dieter's personal gut flora, has brought the potential benefits
of fermented foods it into the spotlight of modern healthy food fanciers (Kellman, 2015).
Aside from the health benefits, fermentation practices also entail some larger environmental
effects. Besides its potential to lower people's dependencies on mass-produced goods,
fermentation is also a convenient way to avoid unnecessary food wastage and preserve
perishable food or seasonal food surpluses. Public concerns about food sustainability as well as
health safety have escalated along with the industrialization and standardization of food
production (Harvey, McMeekin & Warde, 2004). Various citizen-driven initiatives began to
promote a rejuvenation of traditional and resilient food production methods; examples including
the "locavore" (eat local) movement, urban farming groups, food co-ops, or various DIY "food
hacking" collectives (e.g. Food hacking base, 2014; Real Vegan Cheese, 2014). The emphasis
of these initiatives is put mainly on the importance of learning, sharing and people's direct
involvement with food production, rather than the de-personalized human-food interactions
performed over supermarket shelves. The traditional art of food and beverage fermentation falls
under this paradigm and starts regaining its momentum within the modern urban context.
The core elements in the fermentation process are starter cultures (or so-called "starters"),
which are microbial media that activate and catalyze the fermentation process. Starters such as
yeast, whey, or salt promote the fermentation process by inhibiting the growth of undesirable
microorganisms and supporting the growth of the desired ones. One interesting feature of
starters is a self-propagation, i.e. their ability to "feed" each other. A starter added to one batch
of soon-to-be fermented food can be re-used multiple times (e.g. kefir grains); furthermore, the
fermented food often becomes a starter by itself and can be used to initiate another
fermentation process (as e.g. in yogurt making). For instance, a spoonful of fermented yogurt
added to a jar of milk will initiate the fermentation process and turn the milk into another yogurt
a process that, when carried out properly, can be repeated ad infinitum and create a real yogurt
cornucopia. Furthermore, some starters keep reproducing by splitting into two and making
identical copies of themselves.
This "cloning" feature is typical for the kombucha SCOBY - a symbiotic colony of bacteria and
yeasts commonly used a starter to make the kombucha drink (figure 1). As the main SCOBY
“mother” submerged in the kombucha jar thickens and adds layers, the surface yeasts and
bacteria that slowly die off start leaving little copies of themselves, thus forming separate active
SCOBY "babies" that reversely nurture their mom. When treated properly (i.e. by providing a
steady supply of oxygen and nutrients), the SCOBYs can theoretically live forever. In practice,
the process does not run so easily, though, and SCOBYs can get contaminated by mold, dirt, or
dust, which makes them dormant and no longer useful (discarding the mother is usually a
painful process for many "kombucha family" keepers).
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In short, if you take good care of your starters, they will grow steadily and make your jars of
fermented goods bottomless - such as in the traditional Czech fairy tail "Hrnečku vař!" ("Cook
mug, cook!" Erben, 1967). The story's main character, a young girl, wanders through a forest
and stops to eat her bread. When an old passerby woman claiming to be famished asks her to
share a piece, the girl gives her the whole bread. The grateful woman gives her a magical gift in
return - a mug that can cook an endless amount of porridge every day. However, despite the
self-propagating nature of starters, fermented foods obviously do not grow out of pure air, and
an endless resource of self-replicating food remains a matter of fairy tales and science fiction.
Figure 1: Kombucha SCOBY mother and babies
Still, fermentation is a value-added process that can transform the raw outputs of agriculture into
food products of unique tastes and potential health benefits, without using much electrical
energy or other cost-demanding processing. Moreover, as starters usually reproduce rather
vigorously, fermentation practitioners are often happy to share them with each other to prevent
overload. In this sense, fermentation starters become a superfluous commodity and an organic
"currency" that can be shared on a barter basis, thereby creating not only unique microbial
genealogies but also unique relations between people who share them. The starter cultures'
self-propagation supports P2P exchanges of fermentation resources and opens an opportunity
to probe the idea of sharing economy, which is often promoted within the smart city agendas as
a way to enable a greater transparency of transactions (Gori, Parcu & Stasi, 2015).
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Sharing Economy and Edible Currencies
The concept of online, sharing economy the use of online media to connect with others to
borrow, exchange and share various goods has been gaining popularity throughout the last
decade, as a new alternative to traditional economic systems (Schor, 2014). Given the diverse
forms of transactions that can be considered as falling under the sharing economy umbrella, a
clear definition of the term has not been agreed upon yet. Recently, Benita Matofska (2015,
para 2) attempted to define the sharing economy model as "(...) a socio-economic ecosystem
built around the sharing of human, physical and intellectual resources. It includes the shared
creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different
people and organizations". Through these collaborative activities involving individuals of diverse
social, cultural or professional backgrounds, the sharing economy participants can streamline,
and to some extent even bypass, various forms of the traditional "business-as-usual" economy
transactions. The sharing economy model has been envisioned as a more transparent,
equitable, socially connected, and sustainable way to perform various economic transactions.
Matofska even goes on to speculate that the sharing model would promote fair play, reduce
social and economic inequality, and diminish poverty.
There exist a variety of community-based online services for peer sharing of material as well as
knowledge commodities, such as peer lodging (e.g. couchsurfing.com), car and ridesharing
(e.g. blablacar.cz), goods swapping (e.g. swap.com; bookmooch.com) or skills sharing
platforms (e.g. goodnik.net). The exchanges performed over these platforms can be both for-
and non-profit and enable free sharing as well as transactions using traditional money or various
alternatives such as the Bitcoin-like crypto-currencies. Digital encrypted currencies such as
Bitcoin, Ripple or Etherum are operated with no central authority, over a vast, globally
distributed and peer-managed ledger called Blockchain (Brito & Castillo, 2013). Rather than
relying on traditional banking institutions or other centralized intermediaries, the Blockchain peer
management model enables transactions controlled by a decentralized pool of participating
users. Proponents of the Blockchain system highlight its "disruptive potential" regarding
"enhanced transparency, immutability, and irrevocability that could support the growth of P2P
markets in many areas", including banking and retail sectors, transportation, or various personal
and corporate services (Crosby et al., 2016). Within the context of smart city plans, the
Blockchain technology has been highlighted as a way to secure a greater transparency and
accountability of the implementation of IoT applications and various smart contracts (e.g. in the
healthcare records management).
The sharing economy model is integrally tied to the visions of informational transparency,
enhanced connectivity, and efficient public services in a smart city. However, when it comes to
its implementation in real life, the model has so far encountered many obstacles and limitations.
Some of the most pronounced constraints include the lack of people's motivation to conduct the
peer sharing exchanges on a regular, substantial basis. Many people who were willing to
engage and share their household goods, cars, food resources or personal skills with fellow
citizens eventually got back to the traditional model of buying products from commercial service
providers a process they found faster and more convenient than arranging meetings with
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other keen peers (Kessler, 2015). Furthermore, the sharing economy idea relies not only on
people's will to share but also to trust each other. Many peer-sharing platforms even specifically
highlight their intentions to enhance users' social capital and broaden their social networks.
That, however, turned out to be another constraint rather than an advantage, and many people
are reportedly hesitant to meet strangers to run the P2P transactions (Kessler, 2015). As a
result, many services propelled by the enthusiastic idea of a sustainable and sociable P2P
sharing eventually closed down their operations or got acquired by bigger and primarily profit-
led businesses (e.g. Zipcar acquired by Avis). Some of the most successful platforms, such as
the ride service Uber.com or the peer lodging site Airbnb.com have over the time started acting
as a powerful intermediary and monetize all the actions performed over their services; leaving
the initial peer sharing ethos behind. Similar is the case of Bitcoin payments that have
surpassed the scope of altruistic peer management and and fell under the centralized control of
powerful corporate actors.
The peer sharing economy model, with all the potential advantages and drawbacks, seems to
coincide well with the idea of "smart" P2P fermentation practices. We decided to probe that with
our GutHub project and the community exchanges of fermentation knowledge, skills, and starter
cultures. Such technology-enabled food sharing efforts are not new, and there already exist
many initiatives and collectives active in this area. Examples include the neighborhood
collectives exchanging locally grown produce (e.g. Foodsharing, 2012), cooking duties (e.g.
Shareyourmeal, 2012), farming resources (Sewon FoodLab, 2014), as well as food leftovers
(Leftover Swap, 2015). With the GutHub project, we use specifically the activities around DIY
fermentation that seems to "naturally" include (or even require) a certain form of peer sharing. In
the next section, we will present data from a participant observation in three different
fermentation collectives, and in a greater detail describe our experiences from the GutHub
community that has been formed shortly after the project inauguration.
THE FERMENTATION GUTHUB PROJECT: FIRST STEPS
The GutHub project grew out of personal cravings for fermented food as well as for a better
knowledge of various fermentation techniques. To satisfy our needs, we started organizing
weekly fermentation classes and meet-ups in the premises of our university department. After
the initial literature review, we followed with the hands-on approach and began experimenting
with basic vegetable, fruit, and milk fermentation. Two interesting aspects of the fermentation
process we thought we should explore within the Singaporean climate were the effects of the
ferment's exposure to different temperatures, and the availability of local ingredients.
During our first experiment with yogurt fermentation, we made six different yogurt batches made
of various types of milk and ran a tasting probe (figure 2). We observed that different types of
organic and non-organic milk deliver diverse taste and texture results. We wanted to try also the
unpasteurized pasture-fed cow milk that is usually recommended in fermentation literature;
however, we soon realized that it is almost impossible to get it in Singapore. Getting access to
the proper local food resources was confirmed as one of the issues to be addressed by the
GutHub project. Our second attempt was a vegetable pickling (figure 3), where we tried using
different concentrations of salt (commonly used as a starter for pickling) or going completely
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"wild" and ferment batches of carrots and cucumbers without salt or any other starter. We also
tried to expose the batches to different temperatures (i.e. room temperature, air-conditioned
room, balcony, and oven). That brought some significant taste variations, and it also proved that
the tropical climate can indeed speed up the fermentation process rather rapidly.
Figure 2. The yogurt tasting session
Figure 3. First pickling experiments.
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Apart from the climate conditions, we have also considered the particularities of local societal
context. Singapore has a rich variety of shopping malls and supermarkets, as well as a dense
and fast broadband network, but also a lack of locally grown food. Being listed among the top
countries with the highest Internet connection speed and mobile phones penetration (We are
Social, 2015), Singapore surely does provide an efficient infrastructure for technology-enabled
citizen interactions and IoT experiments. The economic efficiency also applies in the field of
food production that is based mostly on a cost-wise import. However, the food sustainability
issues are gaining a prominence in the public discourse, and there have recently emerged
several citizen-driven locavore initiatives actively interested in resolving these issues through
information campaigns and hands-on involvement of interested publics (e.g. Edible Gardens
Singapore, 2015; Open Farm Community, 2015; Urban Farmers community, 2015). In this
sense, Singapore seems to provide the ideal context to probe the DIY food practices such as
the "smart" fermentation.
Participant observation in Online Fermentation Groups
Based on the previous literature review, we decided to focus on two types of fermented food
that are popular, but quite challenging to make in the Singaporean context: a sourdough bread
and a water kefir.
Pečem Pecen: Czech Bread Bakers
The site where we conducted the sourdough bread research is a Czech Facebook community
"PečemPecen.cz" (where "pečem" refers to baking and "pecen" to a loaf of bread). The reason
for choosing this site was its large site traffic as well as our familiarity with the Czech language
and culture. Sourdough bread is made of fermented dough instead of the commonly used
bakers yeast and is said to have tangier flavor, as well as a better nutrition profile than
unfermented pastries. A sourdough starter (also called "leaven") is usually made of flour and
water, with different ratios of both producing different bread flavors. Although bread is not a
traditional staple food in Singapore, we have noticed an increased interest of locals in
homemade craft bread, as well as many newly emerging artisanal bakeries offering western-
style pastry products.
The PečemPecen.cz community on Facebook had over 21 600 members at the time of the
observation (April 2015). That is a large number not only for the Czech speaking Facebook
pages but also for all fermentation-related pages in general (to our knowledge, only the Wild
Fermentation group started by Sandor Katz has a larger traffic). The discussion on the
PečemPecen.cz timeline includes tips on the sourdough making; peer-advice and
troubleshooting; as well as proudly shared pictures of users' homemade bread loaves. The
users are mutually supportive of each other's fermentation efforts and achievements: A picture
of a heart-shaped bread loaf would generate over 1000+ likes (figure 4). An interesting activity
we have observed in the community was the organization of regular live leaven-swap meetings.
The community members meet face-to-face, exchange their leavens, and discuss all sorts of
sourdough-related issues. The swaps are performed on a non-monetary barter basis, and
participants either trade one leaven for another or - if they do not have their own leaven to share
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- simply "pay" with a cup of coffee or a similar treat. The microbial leavens thus seemed to us as
a convenient commodity that is "naturally designed" for peer sharing transactions. As we will
describe later, the barter model of leaven sharing encouraged us to start regular live GutHub
group meetups and open the Fermentation Bank of starter cultures.
Figure 4. Warm human-microbe relationships (Adapted from [PečemPecem.cz, 2013]).
Water Kefir Groups in Singapore
The second type of fermented food (or rather drink) we chose for our research was water kefir,
which is not mainstream in Singapore, but gaining popularity especially among the healthy
eaters. Water kefir is a mild zesty fermented beverage that tastes like a light soda. The starter
cultures known as water kefir grains resemble semi-transparent crystal gems (figure 5) and are
one of those specific starters that are indispensable and always need to be added to initiate the
fermentation process. From our first-hand experience with the local grocery supplies, we knew
that the choice of ingredients necessary for water kefir making is likely to be limited (water kefir
grains and a well water an often recommended water type for the kefir making - were quite
complicated to get at that time). When searching for suitable online sites to conduct the
participant observation, we looked up various local discussion forums as well as fermentation
weblogs. However, we were not able to find any single online group that would offer a regularly
updated discussion.
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The first site that we analyzed was a Facebook page "Kefir, Kombucha & Other Probiotics
Singapore" (2014). It was immediately apparent that it is a commercial page, with the timeline
filled mostly with the author's posts offering starters for purchase. The lack of any discussion
about DIY water kefir making or ideas on where to get the starters was significant. However,
from the frequency of visitors' comments requesting for more information on water kefir and
available sources of water kefir grains, we confirmed that there is an interest among
Singaporeans in this fermented product.
Figure 5. Water kefir grains
That made us continue with our search, which eventually ended on a personal weblog with a
post titled "Introduction to Water Kefir, Milk Kefir, and How to Make Them" (2014). The weblog
author provides an overview of the water kefir product, its health benefits, taste aspects, and
preparation tips. More importantly, she also offers her water kefir grains to share, which sparked
visitors' attention and became a leitmotiv of the discussion below the blog post (30 comments in
total, as for the date of analysis March 4th, 2015). However, at the bottom of the discussion
thread, the author mentions that she no longer has any grains to share. Therefore, we took the
uneven ratio of water kefir grains supply and demand as an incentive to start a new line of grain
exchanges with the GutHub project.
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The Fermentation GutHub Manifesto
Based on our hands-on fermentation experiences as well as the online research, we started
sketching the GutHub project motivations and made a list of main points to be addressed:
Provide an online platform for communication among local fermentation enthusiasts
Organize regular meetups and hands-on fermentation tutorials
Facilitate a way for regular exchanges of starter cultures
Encourage members' active participation, mutual support, and troubleshooting
To introduce the GutHub concept and see if there would be enough interest among locals to
participate, we organized a public workshop in the premises of Edible Gardens Singapore, a
local food sharing and "grow your own food" community. The main GutHub principles were
summarized in the "GutHub Manifesto" (figure 6).
Figure 6. The GutHub manifesto and commandments
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The introduced GutHub features included the Fermentation Bank for a storage, preservation,
and exchange of starter cultures; the public Facebook group for online troubleshooting and
community discussions; the GutHub Github repository with fermentation recipes and tutorials;
the online Starter Swarming map listing places where people offer free starters to share; and the
DIY fermentation incubator to support easy maintenance of the fermentation process.
Fermentation Bank: Microbial Transactions
We proposed to use fermentation starters as a semi-living microbial cryptocurrency, something
like an organic Bitcoin encrypted over the code written by microbes and disseminated by human
participants. Similarly as in the case of Bitcoin, the starters are circulated by a decentralized and
diffused network of GutHub members acting as equal intermediaries. Following the Bitcoin
example, we decided to create a Blockchain-like "microbial ledger" that would ensure a smooth
transparent flow of the starter transactions. This requirement led to the idea of the world's very
first Fermentation Bank - a peer-managed space for withdrawals and deposits of starter
cultures. The Bank has been opened in a publicly accessible refrigerator in the Hackerspace.sg
(figure 7); a local community space for geeks, nerds, and tech enthusiasts, where the GutHub
community eventually set up its base.
Figure 7. Inside view of the Fermentation Bank
The fermentation Bank follows a common food bank model, in which "a warehouse serves as a
single collection and distribution point for food donations" (FoodBank Singapore, 2015).
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However, the GutHub starter culture exchanges were not supposed to resemble a free charity
giveaway; such as that performed by food donation initiatives like Food not Bombs (1980). As
we have learned from the leaven swaps in the PečemPecem community, the starter culture
exchanges should be beneficial for all participating peers. During the first workshop, we
confirmed that similarly as in the PečemPecen group, there are likely to be many "fermentation
novices" interested in using the Bank while having no starters for an exchange. To resolve this
issue, we thus suggested that visitors who want to make a withdrawal without leaving any
starter sample for exchange should offer any skills, knowledge, hardware, or tools they have
and can share. Anything ranging from food, drinks, recipes, mason jars, electronics, poems,
tutorials, or anything else that could be utilized by the other community members is highly
welcomed. As one of the members once mentioned, the progress of the GutHub community
should rely on an unlimited "KrautSourcing" (figure 8).
Figure 8. Fermentation Bank ground rules
During the first GutHub workshop, we already received some starters from the participants and
placed them inside the Bank (using a homebrewed ginger champagne for this festive
inauguration). Some participants initiated a discussion about the storage logistics and
suggested to consider details such as the ideal jar size, proper labeling, and cataloging of each
deposited starter. Thus, we proposed to have a "Bacteria Chronicle" with full curriculum vitae of
each starter; including its name, attributes (e.g. wild, domesticated, angry, lazy, hungry), similar
species ("family tree + siblings"), the country of origin, and the ideal storing conditions.
Nevertheless, even if the Fermentation Bank idea seemed to be attractive and engaging to the
workshop participants, we have over the time noticed a relatively low activity around the Bank
that would be spontaneously initiated by the GutHub members themselves. Unless there is an
organized fermentation meetup where participants get directly invited to withdraw or deposit
some starters, the Fermentation Bank interactions are rather sparse. One of the reasons we
have gauged from the members so far is the lack of their time to come to Hackerspace.sg
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merely for the reason to use the Bank. Another possible cause mentioned is the hesitance to
use someone's fridge and take something out of it without a direct permission (even if it was
clearly declared as a publicly accessible space). In that sense, the P2P model of starter culture
sharing seems rather limited and constrained by the lack of people's motivation, time, as well as
clearly defined rules. In many ways, these issues resemble the general limitations of the sharing
economy model described above.
Starter Swarming: Online Map For Starter Swaps
As an extension of the starter swaps performed over the Bank, we proposed to create a local
online map of fermentation practitioners willing to share their starters (figure 9). The starter map
idea is inspired by similar projects that enable online collaboration over a map of accessible
food resources (e.g. Fallen Fruit, 2004; Mundraub, 2010). The GutHub map model resembles
the system of file sharing over the BitTorrent protocol, which allows for a free P2P distribution of
online data (Cohen, 2008). In the BitTorrent terminology the network - or "swarm"- consists of
"seeders" (people sharing some file) and "leechers" (those downloading that file). The GutHub
swarm of starter swappers consists of seeders who offer a starter for sharing and leechers who
want a starter, and are willing to meet seeders face-to-face to get it.
Figure 9. The GutHub's Starter Swarming map
Similarly as in the BitTorrent system, leechers might have an adverse impact on the swarming
ecosystem, by having a poor sharing ratio and downloading much more than they upload. In the
case of the Fermentation Bank, we address this "freeloader" issue with the requirement of
reciprocal sharing; however, the control over the online starter swaps was left to the GutHub
swarm itself. While deliberately abstaining from any control, we want to test how would the
"microbial torrents" work without any centralization. One issue we did take care of, though, is
The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
the personal privacy and security of seeders: The map users should not share their exact
addresses, and provide only the approximate locations in their listings. Each seeder should
leave some contact (i.e. email, phone number), and the details of the face-to-face exchange
should then be arranged via a private communication.
Despite this precaution, many GutHub members reported their hesitations to use the map and
meet with other fermentation practitioners (possibly strangers whom they never met before)
face-to-face. In this sense, the fear of personal security infringements resembles the doubts of
peer economy practitioners mentioned earlier (Kessler, 2015). Another barrier for people to use
the map seems to be the requirement for some basic technological skills. Although the map
runs on a Google maps platform, which we thought would be familiar to most of the members,
some of them reported a lack of confidence to log in their entries. In a way, this limitation
illustrates the issues of limited socio-economic and demographic access to technology tools and
skills that is often mentioned within the context of smart city plans (Deakin, 2013). To create a
"smart" fermentation community as a mock-up of a smart city environment, which would not be
constrained by any socio-economic or professional barriers, we thus need to better
accommodate the late technology adopters and make sure these citizens are not left behind.
GutHub Facebook Group: Online Troubleshooting
To support P2P troubleshooting of all kind of issues potentially emerging during the
fermentation practice, we opened a "Fermentation GutHub" group on Facebook. The
PečemPecen.cz community has shown that Facebook can serve as a useful channel to support
troubleshooting and other forms of user interaction in fermentation communities. Furthermore,
considering the high Facebook penetration rate in Singapore (We are Social, 2015), a Facebook
group seemed like a suitable communication channel for our purposes. To date (March 19th,
2016), the group has 187 members and accommodates a diverse range of discussions. The
group timeline is full of pictures of users' at-home fermentation experiments; requests for
advice; as well as ideas on where to get different starters. We have even managed to (finally!)
start a substantial discussion on water kefir grains swaps. The group members are supportive of
each other's fermentation efforts: A timeline post from 8th June 2015 even asks for a babysitting
service for author's kombucha SCOBYs (figure 10). The author eventually received a positive
response, and her SCOBYs indeed found their very own babysitter.
So far, the Facebook group seems to be the most efficient and frequently used of all the GutHub
technology tools - a fact that most likely relates to the overall high Facebook popularity among
Singaporeans (We Are Social, 2015). At the same time, the relatively large number of group
members does not automatically translate into a substantial site traffic. There are only about 20
users who regularly post some content; the rest seem to be merely lurking around, without any
visible contribution to the group discussion. Furthermore, although the Facebook group proved
to be a useful platform for quick troubleshooting, we realized that it is not such a convenient
interface for the exchanges of full fermentation recipes and lengthy how-to instructions. We first
tried to redirect these longer and more detailed posts into a shared Google document, but that
did not prove to be an optimal solution, as it required an annoying scrolling through a rather long
document. The lack of a proper space for sharing of detailed fermentation tutorials and other
The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
documentation has led to the decision to open a GutHub account on the GitHub.com platform, a
web-based hosting service for software development and open source code sharing.
Figure 10. A request for starter culture babysitting solved by the P2P support.
The GutHub Github: Fermentation Forking
Inspired by the existing food-related GitHub projects (e.g. Fork the Cookbook, 2015), we aimed
at using the platform's option to share and tweak (or so-called "fork") various fermentation
recipes, ideas, tutorials and other "source codes". This fermentation forking strategy enables for
a fast and easy correction of the uploaded recipe and tutorial "source codes", and accelerates
the troubleshooting process by letting the users collaborate without time, space, or license
limits. The idea behind the GutHub forking is that no recipe is ever complete, as there are an
infinite number of culturally or otherwise conditioned approaches towards the fermentation
practice. Therefore, our hope has been to create a peer-developed recipe scrapbook that would
contribute to the overall diversity of existing fermentation practices. From what we have seen so
far, however, the GutHub Github entries are rather sporadic possibly for the similar reasons
that cause the low user engagement at the Starter Swarming map. The GitHub platform is not
designed as a common ICT platform for users with basic technological skills and does not seem
to be as popular as the more "lay user friendly" Facebook or Google map services. In a way, the
implementation of the GitHub platform within the GutHub design only extrapolates the issues
with limited access to technological knowledge, skills, and resources. The idea to use the
The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
attractive and less commonly known GitHub platform (and the tempting GutHub GitHub pun)
seem to have similarly limited practical use as the other peer sharing platforms.
Mother 0.1: DIY Fermentation Incubator
The last technological feature of the GutHub design that we would like to introduce here is the
prototype of DIY starter culture incubator "Mother 0.1" (named after the Mother computer of the
Nostromo ship in Ridley Scott's Alien series). The main function of our incubator is to maintain
the optimal conditions that help promote particular fermentation processes. The idea is that
different foods and beverages require different climate and optimal temperature to ferment
efficiently. However, along with the DIY incubator device, we did not want to promote
standardization of the DIY fermentation process, but rather to further support the engagement of
GutHub members of diverse professional backgrounds. The GutHub incubator uses low-cost
components and consists of a Styrofoam box and open source heat and light sensors (figure
11).
Figure 11. The low-budget incubator uses a simple Styrofoam box as a container
The heat sensor can detect the temperature in the Styrofoam box and either switch on or off the
heat lamp, which helps to maintain the temperature within a defined degrees range. We also
built a relay module to ensure that the heat lamp can be controlled using the sensor and
Arduino (figure 12). Besides the sensors and the relay, we designed a sketch for a pH sensor
using a red cabbage juice as a color indicator of different pH levels in fermentation processes
(the cabbage juice changes its color according to the acidity of the fermented solution). As for
now, the Mother 0.1 prototype is still under construction, and we are tinkering with the
The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
optimization of the heat sensors. Although the Mother 0.1 was a great opportunity to organize
separate DIY incubator making workshops that brought together people of very diverse scopes
of expertise, the device itself seems to serve more as a fun prop than a useful fermentation tool.
Along with the more geeky activities around the incubator, the GutHub project attracted the
attention of people who would probably never come only for the sake of fermentation. In this
sense, the incubator works as a good interaction tool that helps to diversify the GutHub
members' base; however, similarly as with the other technology devices described above, its
real usefulness for the "smart" fermentation practices is rather questionable. This finding again
supports the criticism of the smart city IoT/ICT innovations and peer-sharing utopias. However,
our intention here is not to conclude with a techno-sceptical rant or conservative call to
rejuvenate the good old traditions and time-proven paradigms. Rather than that, we would like
to use the GutHub drawbacks to highlight some potential limitations of the current smart city
visions, but also to show that there are some limitations of the DIY community-run alternatives.
Figure 12. "Mother 0.1" uses Arduino to control heat and light
CONCLUSION: SMART NETWORKS OF CITIZENS, MICROBES, AND SENSORS
In this chapter, we summarized the activities of the Fermentation GutHub community of food
geeks based in Singapore, as well as the practices of three other fermentation initiatives. The
GutHub community is a long-term project that has over the time of its existence outgrown the
scope of scholarly interests and academic work. The GutHub group is still gaining new
members, and we continue to help manage the community activities and organize fermentation
meetups, workshops, and other public events. Along with these activities, the project hopes to
attract the attention of locals and involve them in hands-on fermentation activities, as well as in
open discussions about the smart city concept.
The Fermentation GutHub Project and the Internet of Microbes Book Chapter | IGI Global
The GutHub community serves as a mock-up of a larger smart city environment that replaces
hierarchical smart city relations with a horizontal peer-management; and the high-end ICT and
IoT solutions with low-cost food and technology resources co-created by the community
members themselves. The project encourages citizens' direct hands-on participation in creative
processes rather than a mere consumption of ready-to-use solutions. Instead of a well-
organized agenda managed by few powerful stakeholders, the GutHub project highlights the
importance of a peer grassroots engagement supported by various low-cost technology tools.
The project proposes a broad understanding of a smart city built on an IoT infrastructure that
includes a symbiosis of citizens with many different kinds of "things". In the GutHub model,
these things include various technologies as well as non-human microbial actors. None of these
actors can control the GutHub practices fully: the human participants take care of their starters,
which then leverage the fermentation process and take a reciprocal care of participants' guts.
The technology tools should make this interaction easier, faster, and open to a broader
audience beyond the scope of "typical" food enthusiasts.
The speculative GutHub scenario enables for impromptu interactions that can result in unique
relationships and flavors. At the same time, the lack of clearly defined roles of the individual
community actors (e.g. no requirements on substantial contribution of human members to the
community discussions, or the intentionally broad scope of the Fermentation Bank transactions)
creates certain limitations. Our ambiguous experiences with the implementation of the "smart"
fermentation tech-tools and the loose community engagement in many ways show the possible
limitations of the techno-optimism behind current smart city visions. At the same time, the
grassroots citizen initiatives such as GutHub show that there is an interest among citizens to
share their knowledge and material resources to better understand various expert processes
and agendas behind top-down innovation plans. We hope this chapter would help to initiate a
further discussion about these issues and the possible ways to improve them.
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